All Hands On Deck!

Today was the first day of the much-anticipated dig.  Setting off this morning with my waterproofs, walking boots and rucksack I felt as though I was about to tackle Snowdonia.   I probably did allow for too many worst case scenarios judging by the weight of my rucksack.

The site itself is extremely remote.  The ground is boggy and bumpy, and we were sharing it with some curious cows.  They must have seriously ruminated about the motley group of bipeds digging up their grass today.  (Not to mention the yellow quadruped with a wagging tail who liked the taste of their dung).  Yes, Trudy came too.

The plan today was to dig four trenches so that we have an idea where to focus our efforts for the next two weeks.  As we set to work the air became damp with impending rain.  Thankfully one violent shower was all that fell from the sky.

Because we are excavating a field that is normally used for grazing cattle, we have to pile up the soil in separate mounds so that afterwards we can put it all back in the right order (known as backfilling).  The topsoil is the first layer of soil, and this was hard and crunchy as the spades kept hitting tree roots. 

Some people dug the soil, while others (like me) began sieving the mounds of earth to sort out any hidden finds.  It was a lovely moment when one of the volunteers found his first large piece of pottery.  We all found various fragments of pottery and glass.  The general rule of thumb for novice archaeologists is: “If you’re not sure, put it in the Finds Tray”.  At first most of my “finds” were stones and gravel, but as my fingers became more tuned in to the soil I was able to hand-sift tiny fragments of glass and pottery, and to differentiate between stone and brick.  As the trench became deeper, the soil lost its lumpiness and became more fine and dry.  By the end of the day I had even stopped yelping at the sensation of worms and centipedes wriggling through my fingers.

Today has been such a memorable day.  I enjoyed the competitiveness between the different trench teams, the camaraderie during the lunch break as we sheltered under a gazebo, the sonorous cows, and the field itself with its old oak trees peacefully watching.

But like all the volunteers I am absolutely exhausted!  Walking back from the site at the end of the day I could hardly muster up enough power to motor my arms and legs.  At one point I actually forgot how to walk.  We left the seasoned archaeologists on site digging deeper into the trenches.  Which one will be our focus for the project, and will we discover anything significant about Studmarsh?

Lift Off! The Official Launch

As always when planning outside events, the British weather was doing its utmost to cause disruption right up until the morning of the launch.  Thankfully we were spared the wet stuff, which kept spirits very much alive throughout the day. 

The venue was Lower Brockhampton Estate just outside Bromyard, which is owned by the National Trust.  Brockhampton literally means “the farm of the dwellers by the brook”, and the 1680 acres of parkland, woodland and fields create a tremendous feeling of continuity.  This beautiful place has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years.  The first owners of the estate, the Brockhampton family (who took their name from the place) built the Norman chapel which now stands as a ruin in the grounds.  The manor, Lower Brockhampton House, was built in the 14th century by John Domulton, and although by modern standards it does not seem extravagant or luxurious, at the time of construction it was an ostentatious display of wealth and status.  Similarly the moat which once surrounded the manor was intended more as a status symbol than a defence. 

The Studmarsh site which we will be excavating is not far from the Brockhampton Estate and visiting it really helped me to connect with the location.  I was struck by its remoteness.  Even the National Trust ticket kiosk was a considerable distance from the manor.  As we trundled down the lengthy drive, I thought of the people who had made the same journey in previous centuries before the luxuries of cars and concrete paths.  Their world must have been a local world.  This time next year we may know more. 

For the project launch a huge tent had been erected to house the displays and information stands of the various Organisations supporting Past in Mind.  I thought it was impressive – but then I didn’t have the logistical headache of negotiating tent pegs, poles and limited time.  Once again I was pleasantly surprised by the high turn-out, and there were some new people in the group which was encouraging.  We began with a short talk by the Project Manager Jenny McMillan, who outlined the ethos of the project and the idea behind Past in Mind.  I still have to pinch myself every now and then to remind myself that only a few months ago we were waiting to see if Heritage Lottery would provide funding.

Ian Bapty the senior archaeologist gave a guided tour around the Brockhampton Estate.  It was a very useful exercise as it enabled us to get the feel of the area and to put the Studmarsh site into local context. I enjoyed simply standing still and absorbing the peaceful surroundings.  My Guide dog enjoyed sniffing the green grass and watching the ducks (mallards not eider ducks) out of the corner of her eye.

Obviously the main focus of this project is to carry out historical research and the excavation in August.  However alongside that we are aiming to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illness.  I believe that an effective way to reduce and ultimately remove stigma is to talk about seemingly taboo subjects.  So often stigma arises out of fear and common misconceptions, so open discussion is a positive step forward.  Quite apart from anything else, sitting down and talking puts most people at ease.   One of the highlights of the launch event for me was a lively post-lunch discussion about mental health recovery in relation to the Past in Mind project. 

All the volunteers took part in the discussion regardless of their background.  It was fascinating to listen to the breadth of knowledge and experience expressed by so many different people.  Topics ranged from mental health recovery, perceptions of reality, Nature versus Nurture, history (including mental health in historical context), and archaeology.   There was an Olympic-style academic debate between the history and archaeology experts about their different approaches.  Game on!     

I felt really positive after this discussion and easily could have stayed for another hour. One of the things I like about the Past in Mind group is that everyone is very accepting of each other regardless of differing opinions (academic or otherwise).  It is a diverse group, but a united one.

A positive result for the launch was that many more volunteers signed up for the project and I can now declare Lift Off for Past in Mind.

 

The next important part of the project is the Studmarsh site survey which will take place from June 25th – June 30th.  Ian Bapty has provided details about how to get involved with this aspect of the project – please refer to his post, “Site Survey”.  As usual, anyone is welcome to join but please register as soon as possible as numbers are limited.

 

 

The Beginning

English: Bromyard from Bromyard Downs: Looking...

English: Bromyard from Bromyard Downs: Looking westwards from Bromyard Downs provides a view of the whole town. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you were asked to depict a historian, what would you say? If you were asked to depict an archaeologist, what springs to mind? If you were asked to depict a person with bipolar disorder, would you have an image in your head?

Humans are very good at stereotyping. We like people to fit into neat boxes and categories. When someone doesn’t quite fit into any box or category, it often causes discomfort – even annoyance.

A Past in Mind is a community project which has an inclusive approach. Accepting that some volunteers may be experiencing mental health problems has meant that everyone is tolerant of others in the group. There is no “them and us” theme. We’re a group of people interested in history and archaeology.

We had our volunteer Taster Day two weeks ago. The sun was shining and this made the general mood even more exuberant. I must confess that I did not know what to expect. I knew that we were going to be given a general introduction to studying historical records, but that was it.

We virtually hijacked the archives research room in the Bromyard Records Office. It’s a room that is not accustomed to general chatter, and at first the creaky floorboards seemed disgruntled at our noisy intrusion. After a while though, I felt the building relax enough to give us its blessing. After all, the disruption was academically inclined.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned stereotypes. I quickly realised that no one in the group could be summed up or categorised. This was brilliant! One volunteer possessed incredible knowledge about eider ducks (hence the header picture – as the eider duck was integral to our brainstorming session). Others volunteered historical facts and dates, general knowledge and local history expertise. It was clear that each person in the room had something to contribute, and the mix of skills and knowledge created such a fusion of brain-sparks that I literally felt my head buzzing. Speaking more generally, it is important not to have preconceived boxes ready to house this project’s discoveries. An open mind is key to our success.

By the end of the two hours the group was united in its passion for discovery. Our starting point had been one man, a Yeoman who owned land in the area and had made a Will in 1674. From this single Will, we could glean information about what type of person he was, what he may have been through during his lifetime and how it may relate to the events occurring in Britain at the time.

In effect, history became real and touchingly human. I felt that I’d become intrinsically connected with the local area and the people who once tilled its soil. Our Yeoman was no longer just an entry in local records, he was alive in our discussions to the extent that he was almost tangible. I cannot wait to explore further. Not only that, we gelled as a group and this helped us to work together creatively. The feel-good factor was second-to-none. I knew that I would get absolutely no sleep that night – my brain was electric.

This Taster Day was a great beginning for the Past in Mind project. The most gratifying thing was that everyone present was eager to find out more and to continue with the project.

We meet again on Thursday May 31st at the Volunteer Inn, Harold Street, Hereford (4.30/4.45pm). We’ll be visiting the nearby Hereford Records Office to study relevant documents that might help us to understand more about the Brockhampton site. Anyone who is interested in participating in the project is welcome to contact our Project Manager, Jenny McMillan: Jenny.McMillan@herefordshire-mind.org.uk